I really want to focus on Manteca, which I visited before we started social distancing; on all its good points. There’s the cosy atmosphere in that long and narrow room, at the end of which is the pass and the kitchen beyond; the informally attentive service; the stylish design – sleek grey tiles, a ceiling of criss-crossing wood, well-made wooden chairs and simple tables; the fundamentals of the food – an Italian menu that celebrates great butchery and handmade pasta in an array of moreish dishes. But there are two things I just have to deal with: tardiness and manure.
Let’s start with the first issue. My lunch companion was such an old friend that she could burn down your house and I’d still make excuses for her, therefore – so as not to embarrass her – let’s call her Jazzanderpuss. We’d agreed to meet at 1pm and I was running early, so looked forward to her arrival at around the aforementioned time. We got to 1.10pm, then 1.20, and at 1.29 I texted her ex-husband, an equally old friend – let’s call him Sid – and asked her how late he thought she might be.
Sid reckoned on 40 minutes because she is ‘VERY BUSY’. This is a modern phenomenon we are all too familiar with. People use it as flattery or if they want to impress you: ‘I expect you’re very busy,’ ‘Oh yes, I’m SO busy.’ Occasionally I disarm such oleaginous shtick by saying, ‘No, not really.’ Anyway, Jazzanderpuss is SO busy. Busier even than my mother, who is sometimes SO busy she starts packing for holidays six weeks before the flight.
Anyway, she arrived at 1.41pm, by which time I could recite the menu and describe every diner within 10 feet and provide a psychological profile for each of them. She was late because of a work drama concerning a column she writes about Jazzanderpuss. But as I love her and I’m just so not busy that I can arrive at places early, I forgave her and we set in to a good lunch.
Which was great fun and tasty and wonderful – apart from the second issue: manure. I’d got a whiff of it earlier as a dish went past. The smell was so familiar but so out of place. And while I didn’t relish it, it did instil a feeling of familiarity.
It wasn’t until I discovered its origin – a plate of steamed mussels topped with ’nduja (that spicy, spreadable pork from Italy) – that I could put my finger on it. It was the same smell as the farm over the road from where I live, of the muck, mixed in with straw. Putting a spoon of the mussels to my mouth was like entering the very cowshed. Quite how (let alone why) they manage to elicit such a pong was beyond me. The mussels may have been impeccable, but it’s hard to tell when you’ve been hit in the face by a cowpat.
Jazzanderpuss was horrified and, a steely woman of the pen, asked a passing waiter to remove the dish forthwith. It was like a punishment for her tardiness. But that aside, Manteca is simply wonderful. A starter of chicken liver was as long, rich and deep as a newly discovered gold mine. There was gloriously fresh focaccia, and a novel dish of farfalle pasta coated in a sauce made of kale, vividly green and bursting with flavour.
A generous plate of pork – a world-record-breakingly large chop cut into slices and served with a hunk of cabbage – was a celebration of the pig, wonderful flesh and fat. Grilled greens were charred, drizzled with oil and chilli and just so good. We had a rich pud also, a deceitful chocolate sorbet: it was ice cream with flecks of buckwheat and sweet mascarpone.
So cast aside that odd smell and tardy Jazzanderpuss, and I was in culinary heaven. Though this will be my last column for a while, it’s a feeling I hope to experience again, in time, once this crisis is over.